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Ash stayed poised, nothing moving except for the shallowest of motions around her chest as she breathed slowly and silently. None but the keenest of eyes would notice, and no one ever did. Even her eyes were motionless, fixed on the same spot as they had been for the last eight hours and fifty seven minutes; the clock. It slowly counted out the time to closing, to freedom. Tick, tick, tick.
The janitor shuffled through, pushing people ahead of him with gentle warnings of “Closing time; time to go; we’re closing.” as he did every night.
Soon, soon, soon, thrummed her blood, her pulse, counting down the seconds left till the day was over and done with. And how glad she would be when that was true.
At last her sharp ears heard the lack of noise as the power was shut off in sections. The hum of the building lessoned until no sound could be heard.
Then, from off in the distance Ash heard a thump thump, swish. Thump thump, swish as the janitor made his rounds with the broom. Ash saw him enter in her peripheral vision, a perfectly average man in the uniform he always wore. He held a broom and dustpan and was sweeping up the litter that always ended up on the floor. With a last pass of his broom he wandered on, and the sound of him emptying the dustpan soon reached her ears.
Silence fell, true silence. Nothing moved, nothing made a sound. It was peaceful, this lack of noise, of motion, of anything living. The only light was a jarring red from the numerous exit signs, casting a deep red sheen over the room.
The moment was broken as Ash shattered into motion. Her eyes blinked once, twice, green pupils dilating to counteract the lack of light. She stretched, nearly knocking over the mannequin next to her, dressed in the style of a man during the Victorian age. He was a charming looking fellow, but rather dull as conversations went, and his clothing was beginning to look a little faded at the hems. She stepped daintily around the other men and women posed in the display, careful not to catch her full skirts on anything.
Ash walked gracefully to one of the arched doorways, peering around it, her green eyes cutting through the darkness with ease. With a small sigh brought on as stiff limbs complained she followed a worn path to the nearest display. She peered in and called out softly, “Jake, get your rear out here. The museum’s closed!”
A small growl came from in the large-as-life display. As Ash had done only moments before in her room, now so did Jake. A huge shadow detached itself from among other shadows as he walked out. The Neanderthal’s figure looked less intimidating once the boy beneath the costume pulled off the beard and hair, setting the wig atop another mannequin’s head nearby. Ash appraised him as he walked over. “You got lucky no one noticed that scar.” She noted, referring to his newest prize, a long slash down his arm.
Jake laughed, a surprisingly deep sound. “And you never did get all the dirt off. Your hair’s the wrong color.
Ash smiled a little, nodding. “Humans. They always were unobservant.”
Jake shrugged, adjusting his loincloth. “Shall we go get the others?”
Without answering Ash moved over through the next archway, passing from the ancient stone to a medieval scene. “Erik, time to go.” she called. From within the display came a relieved sigh as one of the armored knights dropped their sword from where it was upraised, caught mid-air while slaying a stuffed dragon. “I thought my arms were going to fall off!”
Ash and Jake chuckled appreciatively, and then followed Erik as he clomped to the next room. Here they focused their attention on a group of horses who were frozen in time; racing across a grassy plain. Seeing the three enter the room, one rider swung down from her horse, her dark skin painted with tribal symbols and the feathers in her hair rippling a little in the breeze caused by her passage. Becca spoke in clipped tones, leaning her bow and quiver against a horse’s leg. “Honestly, if I have to look at the same fake painted wall another day I’m going to go batty and shoot someone.”
Ash murmured an ambiguous answer as the growing group passed through a few more rooms before reaching the entrance hall to the museum.
They immediately split up. Ash headed for her usual room, and having slipped in she prowled the proximity. “Jake, stop trying to ogle me and go change!” With a huff the boy in question headed off to his own room. Ash checked once more then worked her way out of the voluptuous dress and corset, and into more comfortable and ambiguous jeans and shirt. The powdered wig was carefully removed and placed atop a bust of some long-dead man, then she exchanged her slippers for sneakers and walked back out into the main hall.
The gang was already assembled, looking like any other group of teens without the unusual, and unwieldy, costumes. None of them spoke much, looking around at the now very familiar exhibits.
With a slow intake of breath, Ash spoke, disturbing the quiet. “Let’s go people. We’ve got a mission.” The other three nodded in almost perfect harmony. They were ready. They always were.
With Ash in the lead they headed to the front of the vast museum, letting themselves out of the giant glass double doors that separated the building’s interior from the outside world.
The night was quiet; nothing disturbed the dark sky but the occasional pinprick of a lamppost. No animals could be heard, and the moon glared down without a word. Far off in the distance over the silent city a car alarm was just discernable. Becca shifted. “When will that stupid alarm be fixed? It’s been going off for ages now.”
“No one seems to care but us.” responded Erik.
Jake laughed. “No kidding.”
The rest of the group chuckled then slid into motion, skipping down the wide marble stairs to the cracked pavement.
Erik blinked once as his feet struck the cracked asphalt. "So, what's the direction for tonight?"
Ash paused. "Left, towards the outskirts I think. We haven’t been that way in a while."
"Won't that make our chances slimmer? We haven’t found anything out there in weeks, why would we find anything new?" this from Jake, always the skeptical one.
Becca turned with a scowl. "Why don't we just give up? We haven’t ever found anything, and we never will! Let's just go home."
It was Erik's turn to get angry. "Home. Where, pray tell, is home?"
"Not here, that's for sure." huffed Becca.
"Not anywhere." this from Jake, who was surveying the far-off skyline with distaste.
It was a long-standing argument, and one that brought the same feelings to light no matter how many times it was played through. And as usual, the decision fell to Ash, who had proven herself leader many times before.
“Left. And let’s hope there is something more out there than usual.”
The group muttered but conceded, following her as she set off down the darkened street. A lone pile of trash was chased down the street by a breeze, the rustling sounding loud in the absolute quiet. For there were no normal city noises, nothing but the rusting of the breeze in the branches and the shuffling of the teen’s feet on the cobbled streets.
They walked for many minutes, unspeaking, until the darkened shop-fronts gave way to more haphazard structures, windowpanes broken and doors off kilter. It was a ghostly effect in the black and quiet streets and they bunched closer together.
At long last their goal was achieved at they gained entry to the city dump. It was a treasure trove of items, an obstacle course of strange and unidentifiable shapes that leered out of the black. What could be gained here was unknown; the question being what would be gained. On some unspoken signal the group split and began picking their individual ways through the rubble.
After a few fruitless minutes of searching behind a particularly large mound of junk, Becca plunked down on a couch, which was where Erik found her, fists pressed to her face. With a concerned, “Are you alright?” he took the five steps to the couch and sank into the yielding fabric, sliding one arm over the girl’s shoulders.
Her shoulders shook against his hands, and with a sob she flung herself into his chest, wrapped herself in his arms as he stared at her in bewilderment. “I’m not a..a..alright. Not at all. We’ve been s..searching this dump for mon..months. And wh..what have we found? N-nothing. Well, I’m done. I’m quitting. I’m s..sick of it.”
He cradled her shaking frame in his large arms. “You don’t mean that.”
“But I do. I’m done.”
He was about to answer, but was stopped by a call from afar, Ash yelling for them to come. Something had perhaps been found. He tried to get Becca to come, but she refused and he left her there, promising to return quickly. Ash and Jake were gathered by a pile, the bottom of which had a limb poking from it. They stood for a moment, watching the unmoving arm.
“He’s obviously dead.” said Erik with distaste.
“You don’t know that.” Ash walked to the arm and gave it a yank. Erik gasped as it came free, unattached to anything.
“Mannequin.” spat Jake. He turned abruptly and ran off among the looking shapes, quickly falling out of sight.
Once it had been proven a false alarm Erik returned to the couch, and stopped short. Becca lay sprawled on the ground, hair spread over her face so that from a distance it seemed she was only sleeping. But the glint of glass by her hand and the liquid oozing from her neck proved otherwise. Her chest didn’t rise, and it was quickly plain that her limbs fell at odd angles. With a strangled yelp Erik went running, the rest of the gang arriving on his heels moments after his panicked call.
Ash rounded the pile of trash with an unconcerned look on her face, well used to the scene. Jake slunk in from a different direction, face wrinkling as the smell of oil assaulted his nostrils.
With a sigh Ash settled to her knees beside the prone body. “You fool.” She murmured to the still-warm form. “You know full well that won’t bring about escape.” With a well-practiced touch she pressed two fingers firmly to the base of Becca’s neck. A hiss of steam and a few pings later and the faint outline of a door-like shape appeared on the girl’s neck, splitting the skin cleanly. Gently Ash pried it open, revealing not blood and bone but wires and circuitry, that which would also be found in any of the four who were left standing. She pressed a few places and flipped a switch and with a gasp Becca came to life, the opening in her neck sealing with a hiss as her chest moved in a steady rhythm. “Becca, why did you try to kill yourself?” asked Ash in a gentle and confiding tone.
“I’m sick of it. All of it. Why couldn’t you have left me lying there? It’s better than this half-life we live.”
Jake spoke, his voice worming its way into the conversation. “Since the war we’re all that’s left. The Professor made us to preserve that memory.”
“Preserve for what? No one is still alive, nothing but holograms. Even the Professor is dead and gone.”
Erik spoke now. “It is for the better. That is why we continue the search. Something may have been left from the Attack.”
“But nothing survived the virus, nothing with real flesh.”
“We have to make sure.” Jake said, sighing.
And back to Ash. “Come on, dawn’s almost here. It is time to get back.”
Becca started crying and refused to move. “No! I won’t go back!”
With another practiced motion Jake reached out and grabbed Becca’s feet as Ash secured her wrists. Erik flipped her neck hatch open and pressed the large red button on the inside. With a sigh Becca’s eyes closed, then opened.
“Hello. I am Becca. Who are you?”
Ushering her to her feet, the group walked with her out of the dump, lecturing her on all that had been lost in the mind wipe. It was standard procedure, part of their hardwiring. If one became faulty, it was the job of the others to restart them and teach.
Reaching the museum the four slipped into their rooms and changed into their costumes, striding across the floor to their spaces moments before the sun rose and the museum opened. And the holograms continued their rounds through the museum as they had been doing for years. Round and round they went, past the many exhibits, past Ash, past Jake, past Erik and past Becca. And when the clock struck eight the janitor hologram passed by, sweeping up his holographic garbage. The lights shut off, and nothing moved in the black till somewhere in the vast museum four solitary shapes stretched, yawned, and started to move, just another semblance of reality in a shattered world.